The preamble to the Constitution proposed by the Convention of 1787 is in these words:
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
The phraseology of this preamble has been generally regarded as the stronghold of the advocates of consolidation. It has been interpreted as meaning that "we, the people of the United States," as a collective body, or as a "nation," in our aggregate capacity, had "ordained and established" the Constitution over the States.
This interpretation constituted, in the beginning, the most serious difficulty in the way of the ratification of the Constitution. It was probably this to which that sturdy patriot, Samuel Adams, of Massachusetts, alluded, when he wrote to Richard Henry Lee, "I stumble at the threshold." Patrick Henry, in the Virginia Convention, on the third day of the session, and in the very opening of the debate, attacked it vehemently. He said, speaking of the system of government set forth in the proposed Constitution:
"That this is a consolidated government is demonstrably clear; and the danger of such a government is, to my mind, very striking. I have the highest veneration for those gentlemen [its authors]; but, sir, give me leave to demand, What right had they to say, We, the people? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, Who authorized them to speak the language of 'We, the people,' instead of We, the States? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this [pg 122] compact, it must be one great consolidated national government of the people of all the States."38
Again, on the next day, with reference to the same subject, he said: "When I asked that question, I thought the meaning of my interrogation was obvious. The fate of this question and of America may depend on this. Have they said, We, the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between States? If they had, this would be a confederation: it is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing—the expression, 'We, the people,' instead of the States of America."39
The same difficulty arose in other minds and in other conventions.
The scruples of Mr. Adams were removed by the explanations of others, and by the assurance of the adoption of the amendments thought necessary—especially of that declaratory safeguard afterward embodied in the tenth amendment—to be referred to hereafter.
Mr. Henry's objection was thus answered by Mr. Madison:
"Who are parties to it [the Constitution]? The people—but not the people as composing one great body; but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties: were it, as the gentleman [Mr. Henry] asserts, a consolidated government, the assent of a majority of the people would be sufficient for its establishment, and as a majority have adopted it already, the remaining States would be bound by the act of the majority, even if they unanimously reprobated it: were it such a government as is suggested, it would be now binding on the people of this State, without having had the privilege of deliberating upon it; but, sir, no State is bound by it, as it is, without its own consent. Should all the States adopt it, it will be then a government established by the thirteen States of America, not through the intervention of the Legislatures, but by the people at large. In this particular respect the distinction between the existing and proposed governments is very material. The existing system has been derived from the dependent, derivative authority of the Legislatures of the [pg 123] States, whereas this is derived from the superior power of the people."40
It must be remembered that this was spoken by one of the leading members of the Convention which formed the Constitution, within a few months after that instrument was drawn up. Mr. Madison's hearers could readily appreciate his clear answer to the objection made. The "people" intended were those of the respective States—the only organized communities of people exercising sovereign powers of government; and the idea intended was the ratification and "establishment" of the Constitution by direct act of the people in their conventions, instead of by act of their Legislatures, as in the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. The explanation seems to have been as satisfactory as it was simple and intelligible. Mr. Henry, although he fought to the last against the ratification of the Constitution, did not again bring forward this objection, for the reason, no doubt, that it had been fully answered. Indeed, we hear no more of the interpretation which suggested it, from that period, for nearly half a century, when it was revived, and has since been employed, to sustain that theory of a "great consolidated national government" which Mr. Madison so distinctly repudiated.
...The original language of the preamble, reported to the Convention by a committee of five appointed to prepare the Constitution, as we find it in the proceedings of August 6, 1787, was as follows:
"We, the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare, and establish, the following Constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity."
There can be no question here what was meant: it was "the people of the States," designated by name, that were to "ordain, declare, and establish" the compact of union for themselves and their posterity. There is no ambiguity nor uncertainty in the language; nor was there any difference in the Convention as to the use of it. The preamble, as perfected, was submitted to vote on the next day, and, as the journal informs us, "it passed unanimously in the affirmative."
Volume I, Part II, Chapter V, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Jefferson Davis